Mexico. Palenque. The mysterious city lost twice


Palenque is the remains of the ancient Mayan city, well preserved in the jungle of the southern state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Palenque makes an unforgettable impression – lost in the humid jungle, often in the grip of fog, the city looks like an alien abode.

Since 1981, the city is a National Park, and since 1987 it is under the protection of UNESCO. Palenque holds the unofficial title of “the most sophisticated and elegant city in South America. In ancient times, the walls of its buildings were decorated with stucco and paintings, some of which have been recreated.

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Panorama of Palenque

A bit of history.

Time has not left us with the original name of the city. The conquistadors did not know about the existence of the majestic ruins for a long time, quite by chance at the end of the XVIII century a military unit discovered a village called Santo Domingo del Palenque in the jungle, and nearby were the mysterious remains of ancient structures. The Spaniards began to call the ruins Palenque.

In the surrounding jungle and now live Chol Oni Indians, who call Palenque “stone house of snakes,” perhaps in the pre-Columbian era and the city was so called.

Archaeologists have found that Palenque was built more than two thousand years ago, it reached its greatest prosperity in the VI-X centuries. But later the inhabitants left the city for unknown reasons and it was swallowed up by the jungle.

Image of a skull on the ruins of Palenque The surrounding jungle

Video about Palenque


Now Palenque has been cleared of forest and restored, numerous tourists and mystery lovers come to touch the archaeological monument of Mayan culture. On the territory of the city there remained about one and a half thousand different buildings – these are houses and complex technical structures: aqueducts, water supply and outflow devices, canals. These systems are considered the most sophisticated of all pre-Columbian man-made structures. Only 34 of the structures have been studied so far.

Inside the temple of inscriptions.

Among all the buildings in Palenque, the Temple of the Inscriptions stands out, so named because of the abundance of hieroglyphics. On the facades of the structure one can see the remains of expressive bas-reliefs. Immured in the wall of the Temple are plates with the longest known Mayan inscriptions, consisting of 620 relief hieroglyphs. The temple stands on a 20-meter pyramid, and to the top of it leads stairs with 70 steps.

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Sarcophagus of Pacal the Great inside the pyramid

In the Temple of Inscriptions archaeologists managed to make the largest and at the same time the most intriguing find in the history of Mayan studies. While clearing the ruins they were able to discover the secret staircase leading to the tomb. Here is a stone sarcophagus with a mummy of the ruler of the city of Pacal the Great. Covered sarcophagus slab, recognized as the most outstanding achievement of Mayan culture – its surface is decorated with a fine artful carving, whose technique is comparable to the works of Renaissance artists. What is striking is that Pacal’s body was mummified according to ancient Egyptian technology, and the tomb itself resembles an Egyptian pyramid.

Reconstructed copy of the sarcophagus of Pacal the Great at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

But the most incredible was the drawing on the sarcophagus slab, in the deciphering of which, in addition to archaeologists, ufologists and specialists in astronautics participated. The slab bears a detailed depiction of a man in a spacesuit, sitting in the chair of an aircraft, which is unusually similar to a spaceship! The pilot’s hands are on the levers and in front of him there is a very clear control panel with many instruments. To this day there is still debate about who and what is depicted on the slab of the sarcophagus, it is one of the most amazing mysteries of the Maya.

Near the Temple of inscriptions is the Palace – a complex of 12 buildings, formerly the focus of urban life. The palace is topped by a five-story tower with an observatory, where the ruler knew the will of the gods by the stars. Here still stands the pew on which the priest-astronomer sat. The building is decorated with reliefs and images from the life of the Palenque nobility. On the steps of the palace, human sacrifices were offered to the gods. The fact that the staircase leading to the observatory begins only from the second floor of the tower is a mystery to researchers. Why not the ground floor? And how did the priest and the ruler get to the second floor? So far it remains a mystery.

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Next to the Palace rise three pyramids on the tops of which were the main sanctuaries of Palenque – the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Leafy Cross and the Temple of the Sun with an image of the solar god Jaguar. These names are modern, based on the deciphered subjects of the altar plates.

The courtyard of the Three Pyramids Palace

Behind the palace there is a traditional Mayan playground for the ball game, which was given ritual importance. Losers were often deprived of their lives.

View of the ancient city

Worthy of attention Temple of Jaguar, the Temple of Skulls, aqueducts, stone bridge, houses, pyramids. All buildings are covered with unusual geometric ornaments. Tourists accessible to the inspection of the vast majority of buildings.

Palenque amazes with its uniqueness and ingenuity of the Maya – how did they manage to erect such monumental structures in a remote jungle? How did they get the huge stones here?

Once you visit this place, you will be impressed by its enchanting atmosphere for a long time – Palenque stands on the floodplain, surrounded by rainforests where you can hear the sounds of macaws and howler monkeys.

Palenque – The Lost City of the Maya


Information about the May 2016 Mayan city found in the jungle of the Yucatan is available here.

The ruins of Palenque are considered some of the most important Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico. Its beautiful natural surroundings are beyond any epithet. The ancient city is nestled among forested hills, the ruins are often shrouded in thick fog in the morning, a small stream flows nearby, and large pyramids and temples grow in the midst of a canopy of dark green forest. It sounds too good to be reality, but that’s how it really is. The combination of nature and ancient ruins gives the place a special aura. Palenque was declared a National Park by the Mexican government in 1981 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

Palenque – The Lost City of the Maya

In its cultural heyday, Palenque was much more beautiful because the monuments were covered in decorative plaster painted in shades of blue. The existence of the city hidden deep in the jungle was not known until 1746. Even then, rediscovered, Palenque was lost several times until finally explorers John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Caterwood finally introduced this gem of Mayan architecture to the world (1841).

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Palenque photo

A settlement on this site existed since 300 B.C., but Palenque acquired its status as an important Mayan city in the Classic period (300-900). Most of the surviving buildings were built between the 7th and 10th centuries and reached the height of its power during the reign of Pacal and his son Chan-Bachlum (600 to 700).

The inhabitants then left the city, and since this region of Mexico receives the greatest amount of rainfall, the ruins quickly hid themselves in the dense jungle thickets. Even the original name of the city is lost; the surviving ruins got their present name from the nearby small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque. Today, about one-third of the city has been excavated by archaeologists. Wandering between the ruins or viewing the park from the top of high-rise monuments, you can see hills everywhere. For the most part, they are not hills, but Mayan temples and pyramids hidden by jungle thickets.

Palenque Mexico

Palenque’s main merit is not its size or antiquity (many other archaeological sites are larger and older). Its importance lies in its location (in the middle of the jungle), atypical Mayan architecture and epigraphy (inscriptions). Thanks to the epigraphy, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct many stanzas of the city’s history.

Compared with Chichen Itza, the less known Palenque has a quieter atmosphere and less intrusive locals trying to sell souvenirs to visiting tourists. In addition, tourists are not banned from climbing most of the ancient pyramids. Plan to spend most of the day, then you can visit all the monuments, walk through the jungle, and spend some more time in the museum. The best time to visit the ruins is early in the morning from the time the park opens at 8 o’clock, when the pyramids are shrouded in mist against the jungle.

Palenque sights

Palenque Palace

Palenque differs from any other Mayan archaeological site not only in the wealth of relief images and carved decorations, but also in the interesting architecture of its palace. The palace is the largest structure in the archaeological park; it is a complex of buildings built at different times and divided into four parts by a labyrinth of corridors, residential and administrative premises.

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The palace was firstly believed to have served as a residence for rulers and clergymen but later it was concluded that it had administrative functions. Political and military alliances with other Mayan cities-states were made here, offerings were made, and it served as a place of entertainment, sacrifices, and ritual ceremonies.

palenque pyramids

The main feature of the palace is a four-story tower, which is not found in any other Mayan city. This unique tower makes the palace look almost like a Chinese palace. When archaeological research began, many ideas were put forward as to what functions it served. It is believed that from the height of the tower the Maya watched the sun’s rays fall directly on the Temple of Inscriptions on the winter solstice.

Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque

palenque temple of inscriptions

The Temple of the Inscriptions (Templo de las Inscripciones) is one of America’s most famous pyramids and Palenque’s tallest monument. The temple is named after the stone inscription tablets found here. Most of the stone tablets, which tell the genealogical tree of the Palenque rulers, are now in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. Thanks to the texts and relief images found here, the Temple of Inscriptions has greatly helped in the study of ancient Maya culture.

The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque is the only pyramid in Mexico built specifically as a tomb. In 1952, Mexican archaeologist Alberto Rus moved a stone slab in the floor at the top of the pyramid and discovered a stone-filled passage leading down a long staircase. This is how the tomb of Kinich Hanab Pacal, the famous ruler of Palenque, who ruled this city-state for 68 years (615-683), was discovered. This tomb is one of the most famous artifacts in the Mayan world. It contains rich jewelry, sculptural images, but of most interest is the stone sarcophagus in which Pacal’s remains lay untouched from the time of his burial.

Unfortunately, Pacal’s tomb is now closed to the public to avoid further damage to its frescoes. While in Mexico City, you can see the sarcophagus lid in a posthumous jade mask at the National Museum of Anthropology (see Mexico City Museums), but the massive stone sarcophagus still remains here.

Group of the Cross in Palenque

The Group of the Cross consists of the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Leafy Cross, and the Temple of the Cross, all of which are pyramids with a temple on top, topped with comb-like stone decorations. The walls of each temple are covered with sculpted images of religious themes and texts in the Mayan language.

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The images of the cross found on the walls of the temples are not at all the cross we are accustomed to, but represent the tree of the world. The tree of the world was a common element of ornamentation among the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, embodying the four cardinal points.

Palenque Museum

The Palenque Museum is located 1.5 km before the park entrance, open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm, and is included in the price of a visit to the ruins. The museum is small but interesting, and exhibits found during archaeological excavations are on display here: jade jewelry, a huge collection of ceramic shrines, and several stone panels with inscriptions. The main exhibit of the museum is a life-size reproduction of Pacal’s sarcophagus, housed in an exact replica of a Plexiglas tomb. The museum has a gift store.

Palenque has a number of other temples, pyramids, noblemen’s residences, an aqueduct and an interesting stone bridge over the river.

palenque temple of the sun

Interesting facts about Palenque

– The Mayan ruins are located about 7 km from the small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque. There are hotels, nice cafes and restaurants here, but visitors come here first of all to explore the famous ruins of the ancient Mayan city.

– The tourist office is located near the main square of Santo Domingo de Palenque, on the corner of Avenida Juárez and Abasolo. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 9 pm, Sunday from 9 am to 1 pm.

– The cheapest way to get there and back is by bus (colectivos), running between downtown Santo Domingo de Palenque and the Mayan ruins every 10 minutes from morning to evening.

– Between Santo Domingo de Palenque and the Mayan ruins is La Canada, a popular tourist hotel area (located in the forest). On the way to the ruins, shuttles pass by La Canada; wave your hand and they stop right away.

You can read about other ancient cities in Central America in our articles about Machu Picchu and Tenochtitlan. Palenque photo:

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